The Lost Art of Mercy
James famously wrote that faith without works is dead. Apart from introducing soteriological difficulties for some future theologians, he was making the case that the Christian must express his faith through acts of mercy, like feeding the poor and caring for the widows and orphans. All who take the name of Christ agree with this—for how could we argue against the idea of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry when James’s kin admonished us to do the same when he said, “Inasmuch as you have done this unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me”?
Peter Chrysologus was a fifth-century bishop who was famous for his sermons (“Chrysologus” was his nickname and means “The Golden Orator”). Like James, he taught that acts of mercy are critical to the Christian life, just as prayer and fasting are.
He went on to say that prayer, fasting, and mercy must go together: “If a man has only one of them, or if he does not have all of them simultaneously, he has nothing.” All of them are gifts we bring to God, like the gifts the wise men of old brought to the Christ-child: frankincense for worship (e.g., “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!” [Psalm 141:2]), myrrh for the preparation for death (i.e., akin to fasting), and gold for mercy.
Chrysologus also discussed how, if we only offer to God the gifts of prayer and fasting, we do not produce fruit:
During Lent many Christians increase their prayers and their practice of fasting, but sometimes neglect to practice the art of mercy. In some ways it is a harder thing to do. Perhaps that is why the author of the Didache admonished us to “let your alms sweat in your hands,” for an act that produces sweat requires hard work.
But mercy is not just the giving of alms. There were coins available in Jesus’ time, but he didn’t say, “I passed the collection plate and you put money therein.” And while food and clothing can be purchased with money, Jesus and James also told us to take in the stranger and visit the prisoner; such things money cannot buy. Acts of mercy should extend beyond our checkbook. They should saturate our life. We must give away something of ourselves.
Let us remember to water our other virtues with the streams of mercy.
The quotation from Peter Chrysologus is taken from his 43rd Sermon: “Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving.”
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.
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“The Lost Art of Mercy” first appeared in the April 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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